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New power centres threaten Mumbai’s suzerainty in cricket

The anguish is understandable, but I think he oscillates between wistfulness and wishful thinking

mumbai Updated: Dec 14, 2017 23:07 IST
Ayaz Memon
Mumbai have won 41 Ranji titles.
Mumbai have won 41 Ranji titles.

Mumbai’s Ranji Trophy campaign this season began with fanfare and ended in distress. Cricket is such an integral part of the city ethos — in fact a character-defining attribute — that this is a major setback.

Only a few weeks ago the Mumbai Cricket Association commemorated the team’s 500th match in the premier tournament: a milestone that bespoke sustained excellence. Sadly, it wasn’t to be. Last week Mumbai was knocked out by Karnataka in the quarterfinals.

“In our days, if big stars were on national duty, lesser players resolved even harder to make up for their absence,’’ said a former cricketer, who had spent many years playing for the city, a few days after Mumbai’s elimination.

“I also believe established players should have been released for crucial Ranji matches, to give the tournament much-needed gravitas. Why play them against international opponents in a series that nobody really cares for?’’ asked the former Mumbai stalwart.

The anguish is understandable, but I think he oscillates between wistfulness and wishful thinking, neither of which is of much help in winning matches and tournaments in the here and now.

True, Mumbai’s magnificent record — 41 Ranji titles and five times runners up in the tournament’s 84-year history — bears no comparison with any other domestic side in any cricket playing country. This is something to be treasured.

Almost a dozen of these triumphs have come when star players were missing, making Mumbai cricket different and distinct from that of other teams in the country. The resilience and will-to-win attitude in trying circumstances is what made the ‘Bombay School of Cricket’ most admired and feared.

But that is in the past.

On the flip side, Rohit Sharma’s rampaging double century — with young Shreyas Iyer in a supporting role — in the second ODI against Sri Lanka at Mohali on Wednesday again raised the issue whether the Ranji Trophy gets the priority it deserves.

This is an important question, but with limited relevance in the current situation. The argument that Mumbai badly missed Rohit, Ajinkya Rahane (on national duty) and Shardul Thakur (injured) against Karnataka is facile.

Other teams have been similarly handicapped too.

What is pertinent is to see how Mumbai performed overall this season, and it doesn’t make for gratifying reading. Barring lowly Odisha, they couldn’t win another match outright. Juxtapose this with how some other teams have fared.

Kerala, considered minnows, were superb till the quarter-final where they lost to Vidharbha, another team that hardly boasts of big names. For Mumbai to blame the absence of star players, therefore, would be very lame excuse.

Happily, what this reveals is democratisation of cricket power in the country: splendid in a holistic sense, though not quite sweet music to diehards of Mumbai cricket! Or indeed every traditional centre, though Delhi and Karnataka have made it to the Ranji semi finals this season!

The turning point in this I believe comes post-Liberalisation when Bombay’s stranglehold on the Ranji Trophy was broken. Fame and wealth to be made from cricket stoked the ambition of youngsters from beyond main centres Bombay, Delhi, Madras, Calcutta, Bangalore, Hyderabad.

The era of the Dhonis, Yuvrajs, Harbhajans, Zaheer’s had dawned. As cricket’s popularity — and fiscal health — has grown, the ecosystem for the sport has also become better. Today, it’s not just metros that provide good facilities for youngsters.

Talent scouting is more aggressive and high quality coaching is easily available. And when the IPL came, players from tier 2, 3 and 4 cities — clearly hungrier for success — got a fantastic platform to showcase their talent. Serious competition from players from across India has diminished Mumbai’s domination even as it has raised the bar nationally. Some critics believe young cricketers from the city today lack effort, energy and focus. The khadoos (unrelenting) approach that typified the Mumbai cricketer is showing cracks. Long commutes practice, seen as duty earlier, is now seen as chore a source in the MCA complained to me a couple of years back. “Mumbai youngsters want things early and easy. These guys can’t match the resolve of a Dhoni.’’

That may seem overly harsh, but a fresh vision and comprehensive programme to put Mumbai back in the forefront seems to be lacking. A Cricket Improvement Committee (CIC) exists in the MCA, but its proposals and plans seem unclear.

But unless this is crystalised meaningfully and pursued robustly, Mumbai’s suzerainty in Indian cricket could be well and truly in the past.